Ambassador Baer’s Interview with Der Standard (Austria)
January 11, 2017
QUESTION: My first question won’t be a surprise. Austria has the OSCE presidency right now. I guess – and this is what we communicated before – that the USA will have some expectations for this presidency. Can you tell me what you expect, or what is your wish toward the OSCE presidency of Austria?
BAER: Sure. We’re coming off of a German presidency – a German Chairmanship – which has been in a very difficult year in many ways, obviously, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world. And I think the main overall expectation for Austria is that Austria and Foreign Minister Kurz in particular as Chairman in Office of the OSCE will use this Chairmanship to bring new leadership and new confidence to the OSCE community. And the OSCE community, of course, is 1.2 billion people across 57 countries. But I think, you know, the challenging times in which we live in one way are particularly difficult for the OSCE in the sense that the OSCE is, from Helsinki in 1975 on, an Organization that is grounded in values and in the idea that a safe and secure region and world can only be achieved with free and open societies — an idea, by the way, which President Obama repeated in his Farewell Address last night, and which continues to have appeal and attraction around the world. And, you know, this is obviously a difficult moment in many ways for that idea. At the same time, it’s an urgent moment for that idea, and so there is a real opportunity for leadership here.
I think, more concretely, a couple things. One is that, in order to achieve leadership in that respect, putting human rights and democracy at the forefront and being clear that even though Austria is famously a neutral country, being neutral doesn’t mean you’re neutral vis-à-vis fundamental moral principles and political commitments. And Austria is not neutral on the idea that people deserve human rights by virtue of their humanity. Austria is not neutral on keeping the promises that Austria and the other 56 countries of the OSCE have made to each other to uphold. And I think putting human rights and fundamental freedoms, putting media freedom, at the forefront is a way that Foreign Minister Kurz and the entire Austrian team can lead.
The other thing I would say is that obviously, in terms of security challenges – and I think Foreign Minister Kurz is off to a great start in this respect – the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the attempted annexation and ongoing occupation of Crimea remain the foremost hot security challenge in the OSCE area. There are obviously other protracted conflicts as well. But I think the Foreign Minister’s trip last week to Mariupol sent a strong signal that he’s aware that this will remain the top agenda item and that he’s committed to keeping it at the top of the agenda. And I think he can really be a leader in pushing others to support and continuously place a high priority on the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and what we all want, which is a peaceful de-escalation of that conflict.
QUESTION: You mentioned Austria being a neutral country and you talked about the conflict in Ukraine. Do you think the fact that Austria is a neutral country can even be an advantage concerning the conflict in Ukraine right now?
BAER: You know, I think being the Chair of the OSCE comes with a political mandate. I don’t see being neutral or being an ally as something that, in the course of peacemaking, gives you an advantage or disadvantage. I think the challenge for neutral countries is to remember that neutrality is a military term and not a political one, and that obviously it has political implications in terms of military alliances. But as I said, I think the important thing for Austria in its leadership of the OSCE will be to be strong and steadfast in upholding the values that underpin the OSCE. I think that certainly the way that other countries see you can sometimes give you special opportunities as an interlocutor. And I think taking advantage of those opportunities is something that every chairmanship tries to do, and I expect that Austria will do the same.
QUESTION: Foreign Minister and new OSCE Chairman Sebastian Kurz will present his priorities tomorrow, but of course he already told us what the three main circles of his priorities – chapters – will be. And when talking about that, he also said that for – on the question whether the Austrian chairmanship can be successful, relations between the USA and Russia are very decisive and momentous. He said that if the basis for communication between the U.S. and Russia doesn’t improve, the work for the OSCE will be very difficult. Do you think there is a chance for the U.S. – Russia relations to improve and the communications? Also regarding the presidency of Donald Trump?
BAER: So I think it’s important – the OSCE is an unusual animal in many ways – and I think it’s important to recognize this is an Organization that has its roots at the height of the Cold War when there was not great agreement between East and West. So I think it would be wrong to say that any particular bilateral relationship limits the potential of the OSCE. As I said, the values that underpin the OSCE and the commitments that were made in 1975 and beyond are under threat, and I think there’s room for leadership on that regardless of what the tenor of a particular bilateral relationship is. It also is worth pointing out that the OSCE is a place where the United States and Russia continue to sit together with 55 other countries every week and discuss the issues of the day, and that also has value. Later this morning, I will have, before I depart, my last bilateral meeting with my Russian counterpart. And we’ll sit down and discuss the issues of the week with him. There’s a particular role for the OSCE. There continues to be. I don’t see – I guess you can ask a follow-up if you want on the particularities of the relationship.
QUESTION: Maybe one concrete question concerning Ukraine. I think the OSCE is very involved in terms of the Monitoring Mission, and Mr. Kurz suggested to intensify, to extend it. Do you see any – what is your opinion on that? Do you think the Mission has been successful so far? How can it be more successful?
BAER: Well first of all we are very grateful to the more than 700 monitors from more than 40 countries who are civilian, unarmed monitors out there in a largely – most of them operating in a conflict zone and without a lot of personal comforts, etc. And so we are grateful to them for the service they undertake on behalf of all of the 57 countries of the OSCE and indeed the international community writ large. I think we’ve been – we along with many other friends of the Special Monitoring Mission, have been consistently engaged to try to identify ways where we can support their work and where possible enhance their work. And, for example, one of the areas that has been an area of focus over the last year has been the expansion of the use of technological tools to complement the work that is being done by the human monitors. Obviously that’s been stymied on a number of occasions. UAVs for example have been shot down or jammed over Russia-backed separatist controlled areas. And one of the most serious challenges remains, just, these are civilian, unarmed monitors. They can’t force their way into places. And they have been shot at and threatened and restricted from accessing large swaths of territory, particularly on the Russian-back separatist controlled side of the line of contact. When you look at the number of restrictions on the SMM in various periods, it’s well over a majority and in many cases it’s 80-90% of them happening by Russia and its proxies on the ground. And so that continues to be a real challenge. I think our position has been we want to support the SMM having the people and tools it needs to do whatever work it can on the ground, and obviously, if they are able to get more access, they can use their monitors more effectively to give a more complete picture of what’s happening on the ground, and that is to the benefit of everyone who is in favor of full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and to a peaceful solution.
QUESTION: Okay, maybe one last question. After your experience in Vienna at the OSCE so far, beside Ukraine, is there any chapter, any political issue you would take for the most important one concerning the OSCE?
BAER: Sure, I think, you know, first of all there are a number of specific issues. There are other protracted conflicts, obviously – the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Transnistrian region of Moldova, etc. So I could focus on other specific issues. I think as a single, kind of overriding or general challenge, it is the challenge that Secretary Kerry called out at the Ministerial, which is the rise of authoritarian populism. And I think, you know, populism has always been and always will be a false promise, and is therefore doubly tragic because it destroys – or it attempts to destroy or erode – certain institutions and core values under the guise of delivering something for people, and it always fails to deliver. And I think the challenge of 2017 in large respect is to respond to the authoritarian populism that we saw raise its head in 2016 and to respond convincingly. And here, too, I think there is an opportunity for the Foreign Minister to be a leader on not submitting to popular passions, but rather to acknowledge them and respond in a principled way, encourage others to do likewise, and to defend the values that underpin liberal democracy and hold the most promise in terms of the institutions and rule of law that can deliver a better future for citizens of all of our countries.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
BAER: Thank you.